Panelists discuss potential and ongoing crises that may erupt or escalate in 2020, as well as their global political implications. This event explores the results of the 2020 Preventive Priorities Survey, which is available on cfr.org/report/conflicts-watch-2020.
DOZIER: Thank you and welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting, “What to Worry About in 2020.” I’m Kim Dozier, global affairs analyst with CNN and contributor to Time magazine, and I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion, which hopefully won’t give us too many nightmares at the end of it.
But first I want to hand over to Paul Stares in New York, who is going to walk us through what some of you have told us are your greatest fears for the coming year. Paul, over to you.
STARES: OK. Thanks very much, Kim, and thank you all for being here today.
So many of you know every year we poll American foreign policy experts—we’ve been doing this now for twelve years—and basically we ask them to rank or rate thirty contingencies which we think are plausible for the coming year, and we ask them to assess their likelihood and impact on U.S. national interests. And we’ve been doing this for twelve years now, and I think the main takeaway this year is a remarkable level of anxiety about the coming year. We’ve never seen this level of anxiety in the past. Of the—of the thirty contingencies that we identified, nearly half are now ranked in the top tier of most concern, and we’ve never seen this before. And so there’s clearly rising anxiety about global instability and conflict around the world, and we can speculate why that may be the case.
In terms of specific takeaways or concerns this year, again, a massive disruptive cyberattack against the U.S. was the top-rated concern. It’s interesting this year we—in defining critical infrastructure we included electoral systems, so I think there was some concern about the upcoming elections and whether they could be disruptive. This was followed in second place with a mass-casualty terrorist attack against the U.S. We were somewhat surprised that this was ranked so highly; in previous years it’s been going down. But this year it went up again and was only, as I say, closely behind a cyberattack.
In terms of overseas contingencies, the two that stand out in the assessment is a military confrontation between the United States and Iran—and I think we can all point to the reasons why that, I think, is uppermost in people’s mind—and secondly a renewed crisis on the Korean Peninsula. And again, things are moving in a—I think a negative direction there, too. So there are—there are some of the main takeaways. There are other places that were of concern in the crisis. The Middle East, obviously, continues to be probably the most crisis-prone, followed by Africa.
Interestingly, this year we saw again another uptick in the number of potential crises in the Western Hemisphere. Four or five years ago it was probably only ever one or two. Now I think there’s four or five in Latin America, and so that’s another broad trend.
DOZIER: So, Paul, before digging into the specifics of the report, I’d like you to kick off a lightning round of why do you think there’s so much more anxiety this year?
STARES: So there’s a lot of change underway in the world that is, I think, causing instability at the local level, at the regional level, and the global level. But you can also, obviously, point to the policies of the Trump administration in creating considerable uncertainty amongst U.S. allies and partners in the world about U.S. intentions; this quite confrontational approach to Iran, the revoking the nuclear agreement; his policies toward NATO has been very unsettling to our European allies; and also, of course, in Asia as well there’s the trade frictions. And so I think all these things are, frankly, playing into people’s anxiety about the state of the world today.
DOZIER: Daniel Russel, did you have something to add on why you think people are more stressed?
RUSSEL: (Laughs.) Well, I think that the—certainly the region that I know best, Asia, is being buffeted by the twin currents of the unpredictability of the United States and anxiety and uncertainty about America’s commitment, its staying power, its policies, and so on. But also by the more assertive, more capable, and more ideological behavior of China. And on top of that, you get sort of the net effect of the U.S.-China strategic rivalry, which is intrinsically destabilizing and unsettling because countries have to develop coping mechanisms in the face of real uncertainty, both about what China may do by way of retaliation and whether the United States in a pinch is going to be there for them in ways that they’ve gotten accustomed to over the last six-plus decades.
DOZIER: Well, let’s dig into some of the specifics. The major cyberattack being the major fear this year, especially towards electoral systems, Suzanne, why do you think that is?
FRY: Thanks for the question. And I—and I think what we’re seeing in terms of interference in elections and also cyberattacks on critical infrastructure writ large is, if you will, one vector or way in which great-power or major-power competition is taking place these days. And now that we have cyber capabilities that—you know, it used to be we would have more kinetic forms of interaction or more physical forms of interaction between states. And now that we can have these forms of interaction on the digital means, cyber means, there is, of course, an aura of deniability, but there’s also a very direct way of interacting with publics that almost bypasses the state.
And so this is just a very different dimension of major-power competition than we have seen in the past. Specifically, what the U.S. government in my part of the community, intelligence community, is doing about it, as you know, Department of Homeland Security has the lead on election interference concerns. CIA supports that mission, of course, by providing intelligence support, certainly by looking at cyber interference, cyber espionage by major states and other players internationally, feeding that information to DHS and FBI where there’s a domestic nexus; of course, maintaining a very significant and aggressive global posture against Russia and other actors in a more traditional intelligence capacity; and then, thirdly, learning how those actors are behaving and how those actors are learning from one another, so that we are staying ahead of these—of these behaviors and actions, as well as the technologies and capabilities that we’re—they’re using.
DOZIER: Did you anticipate the growth of capability by Russia, Iran, and North Korea in this sector?
FRY: I think there’s a—in this instance I don’t think this is necessarily one of those moments where the intelligence community had a lapse of imagination about how such capabilities could be provided. Gray zone efforts, frankly, and in the Russian case asymmetric measures, go back generations. The targeting of populations is, frankly, a common toolkit in that particular playbook. The learning that we’re seeing by China, Iran, North Korea from that playbook is also something that I think the community was pretty on top of.
I think where more broadly publics in the West may have been surprised is the recognition that the public is the target of the manipulation. And that perhaps is a—has been a slower thing to recognize.
DOZIER: Well, Tom, in your time as national security adviser, did you see this coming? And from what Suzanne’s described and what you know from open-source reporting, do you think this administration is doing enough to combat it?
DONILON: Well, great to be here today. Let me say a couple of things about that.
Number one, as Suzanne said, asymmetric conflict or warfare is not a new thing, right, in the—in the world, but it has been supercharged by technology I think is—I think is the way to think about it. We certainly saw these technologies developing and we’ve seen them, obviously, be able to interact with the principal methods they use, which are on the social media platforms at this point. So I think we’ve seen it enhanced by technology, and the technology has been, I think, obviously, increasing at a fast rate.
I think we’re going to see more challenges, frankly, with respect to this. I think, you know, we’re going into an age here where deception through technology’s going to become, I think, more effective in the deep fake technologies and even deep fake technologies being able to detect detection technologies coming back at them. So we’re into a very—I think a very difficult space technologically.
On the cyber challenge generally—and I do think—Paul, I think that the—probably the reason I think this is at the top is because you did include the 2020 election in the question, which has a lot of focus. You know, we’ve had the intelligence community with unanimous views on what happened in 2020 and what’s likely to happen in—what happened in 2016, excuse me, and what’s likely to happen in 2020. You had the Mueller report. Again, I think—I think if Bob Mueller were here he would say the main headline from his report is, essentially, that we had this pervasive attack in 2016 and we are likely to see it again in 2020.
I worry that the response has been by individual agencies doing what they think is in their lane, right, and that’s a responsible thing for these agencies to do. I think it would be much more effective if we had an all-of-government coordinated approach. Having been deeply involved in cyber—you know, I chaired the president’s commission on national—the national commission on cybersecurity—I don’t think it’s possible to have the most effective response you can have not being coordinated from the center. The agencies and responsibilities are too disparate.
DOZIER: By the center you mean the White House?
DONILON: I mean the White House, yeah. I mean the White House. You know, the—you know, the president barely will acknowledge, right, that we had this—these sets of attacks on our—on our democracy in 2016, and I think I don’t really see the kind of coordination from the center that you need.
You know, for example, in cybersecurity generally the White House, I just think it was a mistake that they eliminated, you know, the position of cyber coordinator—senior position of cyber coordinator at the White House. I just don’t think you can deal with these problems kind of without having a kind of centralized coordination.
So I think that—I think there’s a lot more we could do and should be doing. You know, in a normal circumstance after 2016 we would have had a 9/11 Commission type—you know, type approach to look at all the things that government should be doing to ensure this doesn’t happen again, and we didn’t do that. The best we kind of got to was the Mueller indictments, which laid out in great detail what the Russians—what the Russians had done.
There are a lot of other things we should be doing as well in the Congress, for example. There is pending legislation in the Congress which is I think quite widely supported, quite straightforward in their intent—you know, the Election Security Act, the Honest Ads Act, the SAFE Act, the Secure Elections Act—bipartisan support for it and they can’t move through the Congress. Now, there was some movement today with respect to funding for elections in the states, which is a positive thing, but the fact that we haven’t kind of as a country moved, right, with respect to these sensible things is disturbing. I think it has us in a lesser position than we should—than we should—than we should be.
Last thing I’ll say about the coordination issue—and I think the Congress could play a lot—a stronger role here—if the White House won’t pull together the agencies with respect to really having close oversight as to what we’re doing, right, with respect to the potential attack—likely attacks in 2020—the Congress should do it. I would have a regular set of meetings with the—with the—with the agencies responsible kind of on a—maybe on a monthly basis: Where are we? What are you doing? If you have to do some of it in classified session, that’s fine.
And one last thing I wanted to mention, which is the leadership issues at the top of these agencies. You know, we are—you know, we’re deeply into this administration and we still have—you know, the Homeland Security Department, as Suzanne said, is the lead agency with respect to cybersecurity, and I think Chris Krebs is doing a good job in his lane there. But you don’t—you know, I think the top seven or eight positions at DHS—it’s a more general problem—are not filled. That is not the way to deal with this problem.
DOZIER: Suzanne, I realize you can only talk to the CIA portion of this, but do you feel like your agency is going all out on this effort?
FRY: I do, actually without hesitation. I really do. I think there is an absolute commitment top down to be working this within the authorities that CIA has to be working this. And I also think that the coordination, frankly, twenty years after 9/11 has vastly improved. Notwithstanding the points that Mr. Donilon has made, I do think that there is a—there is an impulse to share, there is an impulse to understand, there is an impulse to stay way ahead of these actors. So I feel very confident about—
DOZIER: And I probably can’t draw you on the subject of do you miss a Tom Bossert-like figure.
FRY: Probably best not to. (Laughs.)
DOZIER: OK. And over to New York. The question that I have on—the leading threat that has now dropped off the top is a conflict with North Korea. We have talks that have stalled. We have a Christmas surprise promised by Kim Jong-un. I want to turn it back over to Daniel and Paul. Are we missing something?
STARES: You want to go first, Dan?
RUSSEL: Yeah. I think, Kim, we are. I mean, the starting point is that there is the basic risk. It’s the familiar North Korean cycle: you provoke, you pause, you extort, rinse and repeat. And we’re sort of in the rinse cycle right now, and there’s clearly something more coming. And the risk increases as North Korea’s capabilities have increased, of course, although, you know, North Korea’s in the extortion business; it’s not actually in the warfighting business. So it’s always going to operate sort of on the edge of what could trigger a U.S. retaliatory strike.
But there’s increasing evidence that the North Koreans see President Trump as a paper tiger. There is kind of incident after incident after incident where he hasn’t really responded. They see him as chasing a Nobel Peace Prize. He’s already declared peace in our time. He kind of owns that going into the election. They’ve conditioned him to disregard short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles that threaten our allies Japan and South Korea, that directly contravene the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
I think one risk is that the North Koreans, although they may have read Trump right thus far, get it wrong. He is notoriously unpredictable or inconsistent. And as the saying goes, you know, hell hath no fury like a narcissist scorned. (Laughter.) So they could easily get it wrong.
Second, there are two big sort of dogs that I think haven’t barked on North Korea, again, remembering that their MO is extortion. One is the threat of proliferation—proliferating not just missile technology, but potentially fissile material or even nuclear weapons to the Middle East.
DOZIER: So you’re saying instead of firing it, North Korea could just start selling it all over the place.
RUSSEL: Yeah, or more likely threatening to share it in a way that is guaranteed to convince the Trump administration that it’s better to pay off North Korea than take these continued risks, certainly through the 2020 election.
But the lesson—to me the big one ties back to the first threat that you raised, Kim, which is cyber. There’s a reason that Kim Jong-un has funded and developed an army of elite, well-trained cyber hackers. Now, some of this is to steal money, and there has been a tremendous amount of successful cyber theft by North Korea that to a large extent has mitigated the effect of international sanctions. But North Korea isn’t merely content with pilfering, and they have experimented in the past with significant attacks—cyberattacks on overseas critical infrastructure. We may not want to think simply in terms of a single massive attack on U.S. infrastructure or on our elections, but rather the threat from North Korea that it can put in real jeopardy American critical infrastructure with a reasonable expectation that it can evade retaliation because attribution is very difficult. So this is kind of a low-cost, high-impact asymmetric space where North Korea had quietly developed immense capabilities. And just as they have surprised us on their nuclear capabilities, they’ve surprised us on their ballistic missile capabilities, we really need to worry about them surprising us in the exercise of cyber threat and cyberattacks.
DOZIER: Paul, I’m curious, was it close, the three top threats? You know, cyberattacks, North Korea, China, were they sort of dueling it out?
STARES: Certainly, the North Korea I think was slightly behind the risk of confrontation with Iran. But I think as you said at the outset, the signs are pretty ominous that we could be heading into a particularly difficult period with North Korea. I think just yesterday the head of Air Forces—U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific Theater warned of a—of another ICBM test. There’s been some activity at various test sites in North Korea suggesting that they may be readying a test, as well as some naval facilities. You mentioned, you know, they’ve indicated that they’re readying a Christmas gift for President Trump and it’s up to President Trump to decide what kind of gift it is. So this is all pretty ominous.
But I’d underscore what Danny said about the cyber threat. You know, we tend to, I think, think of the threat really coming from either Russia or China given what’s happened in the past. But obviously, North Korea has a—and Iran, too—has a significant capability in this—in this realm, and it’s unclear whether we would know in the heat of a crisis, frankly, where these attacks were coming from. We were just talking about this before lunch, that you know, our ability to attribute where certain attacks are coming from, who’s doing it, what their motives are is pretty murky, frankly, and we wouldn’t have an instant readout. And of course, in a crisis when you’re being possibly under attack, there’s a pressure to respond, to retaliate, you know, this introduces a very uncertain new dynamic in crisis management, something I think that is generally underappreciated.
DOZIER: So that lack of attribution or that lack of ability to accurately attribute quickly, do you think that’s contributing to the ratcheting up of the anxiety that we could get hit in the United States and not know where to strike back, or how?
FRY: I mean, I think the—to me? The questions of the technology here in cyber being—I mean, I think Paul is correct in the characterization of cyber and the difficulties in attribution. This is actually something in the NIC’s Global Trends Report from January 2017 we explored in one of the scenarios, of what would happen if actually we had two states’ conflict initiate through cyber means but neither side able to actually definitively attribute either the perpetrator side, to deny it—to be able to convincingly deny that, no, didn’t do it—and the victim side saying—or to positively identify it. You can very quickly get into a miscalculation situation.
And I think, you know, as we try to explain this general anxiety that I think all of us are feeling and sensing, I mean, part of this is some big structural shifts in the international system that have happened, and not just in the last three years. Really, the last twenty years we have seen erosion of norms against the use of violence. We have seen erosion of norms against human rights violations. We’ve seen the rise of China, a resurgent Russia, a West turning inward, stepping back from global responsibilities. And this opens the door, frankly, to regional aggression.
And this is why in that same report from the NIC—and it’s broadly shared in the community—that we see the risk of interstate conflict today and in the next few years really being on par with that period that we experienced in the—in the early Cold War coming out of World War II, before the norms and rules of the post-World War II order had been established. And you know, the U.S.-China rivalry can be thought of in that context as well. We don’t have norms and rules and mechanisms for controlling escalation to govern that.
And so I think this sort of general angst or zeitgeist that we’re feeling right now, I’d turn more to the structural features of this. And of course technology is a key part of it, but there are the big dimensions of the major powers changing their approach to interaction with one another.
DONILON: I agree with that, by the way, just to comment on this, that the—you know, at the top, you know, Paul thought that the anxiety had risen, concern had risen, and we are in the midst of a significant structural change in geopolitics and the return of great-power competition. The post-Cold War period lasted twenty years, twenty-five years. It was just a snap in the—kind of a snap of the fingers in the course of history, and it’s a had a very big impact with respect to the—underappreciated, I think, on a structural level. And technology goes to that, and the U.S. approach goes to it.
I wanted to just follow up on Danny’s point on North Korea just for a second. I have—I have a different concern about North Korea. Obviously, there’s a concern about a potential conflict and escalation, which we’re focused on. I totally agree on the cyber aspect of this. I also think as tensions rise with Iran, that’s another cyber threat that we should keep our eyes on. So general cyber threat increase. But what I worry about on North Korea, Danny, is the analytical mistake that I think the administration—at least the president says publicly—think they’re making, which is this, that we have—we don’t have—we’re not in a rush, that we don’t have—we’re not time pressured with respect to North Korea.
I just think that’s an analytical error, for this reason: that as we don’t talk and as time goes by, right, almost every element of the North Korea program is progressing according to all kinds of reports, right, public reports. And those numbers matter, right? Those capabilities matter for lots of different reasons. They matter for the reasons around proliferation that Danny mention. They matter in terms of dynamics and survivability of your force going forward. And they matter in terms of our missile defense system, in terms of the threat that they—that they present.
So my concern about North Korea is for sure that we could be heading into a more tense time, right, with respect to—with respect to a potential conflict with the North Koreans. I also worry that we could be drifting towards an acceptance of a North Korean regime with a lot of nuclear weapons, which is another whole risk, I think, that we should think about. And that’s a different discussion than we have—than we’re having now about the direction in which arms control is going or not going, the direction in which the numbers and types and the numbers of countries that have nuclear weapons is going.
So, Danny, I have an additional—kind of an additional concern because I think that I hear—I just hear an analytical error that’s not taking into account the impact of increased numbers of potential weapons in North Korea.
DOZIER: Well, one of the things that Danny’s written about is one of the most effective ways to check North Korea was China, but now China seems to have eased up on some of its sanctions actions and looked the other way towards sanctions-busting, et cetera. The other major fear expressed by the respondents in this report was that we could see a confrontation in the South China Sea. So you see a rising China saying, you know, we are little by little, you know, as Donald Trump said in The Art of the Deal, you move the saltshakers out on the room. You just start moving everything towards the other side to increase your power and influence. Do you see China becoming more of a spoiler with North Korea and saying, OK, you’re going to support demonstrations in Hong Kong, we’re going to push back in terms of territory?
FRY: Yeah. I mean, one thing that—I think to bear in mind, particularly in the South China Sea—and there was just an excellent essay by Oriana Skylar Mastro—I just totally messed up her last name—but anyhow, in the Economist, their annual look ahead, just a fantastic essay on the South China Sea and about what to expect. And a couple of points.
Further gray zone activity. Further sort of creation of facts on the ground or islands, if you will, on the sea. Further and actually new China-Russia cooperation in that part of the world, and also potentially vis-à-vis North Korea, whether that’s joint exercises, flyovers, and so forth. And that’s an example of cooperation between Russia-China we’ve seen elsewhere in the world.
I think at the end of the day China still is not looking for a fight—a traditional hard fight, a kinetic fight if you will. It would much prefer to seek the deference of the claimant states through displays of dominance, through intimidation, rather than actual confrontation. That said, though, I mean, the types of escalation dynamics we were speaking about earlier on the cyber context are absolutely in play here. And so the potential for China to overread its ability to control escalation is a very significant risk that all should take seriously.
DOZIER: Danny, before we return—turn to audience questions, what is your take on China?
RUSSEL: Well, first of all, I very much agree with Suzy that there’s really an insidious sort of creeping hegemony in—within the first island chain, which is to say the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where China stopped pounding its chest over the Nine-Dash Line but instead has begun strategies to make it too risky for, say, international oil companies to develop underseas resources in the EEZs of the littoral countries, which puts China and its oil companies in a position to dominate any commercial contracts. So this is sort of prevailing by nonmilitary means.
With respect to China more broadly, I think that some of this is the fallout of the strategic rivalry approach, the adversarial approach that the administration has championed that has somewhat demonized China rather than focus on the issues, focus on the problems. So it’s not a problem-solving orientation; it’s a vilification/denunciation orientation. It’s sort of the difference between a race and a demolition derby. And if, as I certainly find when I talk to friends in China, there’s a growing sense that the Americans have decided that China is an enemy—which has always been a theme in the Chinese Communist Party, but not widespread and certainly not dominant—but if that is, in fact, the prevailing view, then we should, in fact, expect that China is going to not only defend its own interests, but look for opportunities to tie our shoelaces together, to undermine our interests.
So whether it’s in the South China Sea or it’s on the economic front, or particularly with respect to North Korea, there’s an element of the enemy of my enemy is my friend syndrome that we may be beginning to see. And that is the absolute opposite of what the United States needs at a moment of such uncertainty, when not only do we not have our friends and allies firmly lined up with us, but we have now a major power—China—increasingly convinced that they’re in a(n) adversarial struggle that’s really a lose-lose equation.
STARES: If I—if I can just jump in here, Kim, we’ve actually commissioned Oriana to do a deeper dive on the potential for escalation, a military clash in the South China Sea, and she feels very strongly that we shouldn’t assume that China is essentially satisfied with the gains they’ve made over the last two or three years in the South China Sea. And there are some quite plausible circumstances in which they could become more aggressive and more assertive, and seek further control over certain islands, and intimidate neighbors in the region. Whether it’s domestically driven, whether it’s driven by events in Taiwan, the growing competition and confrontation with the United States, all these factors actually could make China less risk-averse as it’s been in the past. And she feels that we are, again, underappreciating that risk.
DOZIER: And of course, when you have that kind of adversarial relationship you can’t exactly message that the law and order that exists in Hong Kong is one of the reasons that makes it a place people want to do business as opposed to mainland China.
With that, I’d like to invite members to join our conversation with their questions. A reminder that this meeting is on the record. So please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it. Please stand, then state your name and affiliation. And please limit yourself to one question and keep it concise to allow as many members as possible to speak, or as I like to say make sure there’s a question in your question.
With that, Paul, do you want to take first question over there?
STARES: Yes. So I understand I’m being traffic cop in New York, so we can kick I off here.
STARES: Yes, this gentleman in the center here.
Q: Hi. Mitch Silber, Guardian Group.
I wanted to direct this question to Suzanne and the IC. In terms of Iran, which we haven’t discussed in this first half-hour, where do you see the U.S. and Iran in terms of the escalatory cycle? Reports about ballistic missiles being moved by Iran to Shia militias in Iraq, bombardment of U.S. bases in Iraq, things going on in the Persian Gulf, how do you assess the situation? How are things likely to develop, as best as you can assess?
FRY: Sure. I’m going to take the question from more of a geopolitical perspective rather than a—the view of a regional expert.
But I would—I would say that, you know, the scene which we have right now is an opportunity for regional aggressors writ large, Iran specifically in this instance, to move out and make gains for their advantage regionally. The dynamics in Iraq in particular over the last week in terms of allegations or reporting, open reporting about Iranian support for protest activity and then changes with militia in Iraq drawing down, is especially concerning.
Moving forward, I mean, I think what we see here also is a breakdown, frankly, of major and other regional powers and the typical cooperative role—problem-solving role—we would have seen. We’ve seen some degree of U.S. and European alignment—realignment outside of the JCPOA on the recent escalation this summer on Iran, and hopefully such, frankly, cooperation can be restored once again. But for my money, this is really a story about strategic opportunity created by shifting dynamics on the ground, but also shifting dynamics geopolitically.
One other observation I’d like to make about the Middle East and actors such as Russia in there, you know, we talk about a return to geopolitical competition. And certainly in my lifetime that’s a Cold War story. I think this is exhibit A as to why, I mean, Russia’s—the sides Russia finds itself on, whether countries like Turkey or Iran actually favor the positions that Russia has taken, say, for instance, in Libya, it’s not clear cut. So every theater, every contingency we’ve got a different set of politics taking place, and how it reverberates also cannot be neatly anticipated.
And so, again, this is, frankly, just a plea for deeply contextualizing with the regional experts how these great-power dynamics will play out with these local dynamics. And sadly, I’m not an Iran expert, so I’m going to leave it at that.
DOZIER: I was just—I have to ask, though, I mean, it does seem that while Iran is feeing the pain of sanctions it is also feeling a certain degree of expansionism after the success of the Aramco attack, attributed to Iranian-backed proxies. And countries throughout the Gulf are reaching out to Iran in ways they haven’t before.
FRY: Right. I mean, I think while this summer’s events are deeply disturbing, I think it’s also important to recognize what did not happen, right? We did not see further escalation, and so that signals to me that there is a degree of external restraint that is also playing a role here.
But actually on the CFR report I was—I imagine the Iran entry—and it is inclusive of Saudi Arabia—but I think drawing that out further and the complexities of that would be—would be helpful.
DOZIER: Tom, are you as optimistic on Iran?
DONILON: Well, a couple things. First of all, the—you know, this attack on Abqaiq on September 4 of this year was an extraordinary attack. It was highly damaging, took 5 percent of the world—global oil supply off the market for a while. It’s some of the most valuable energy infrastructure real estate on the face of the Earth, and it was attacked quite precisely by Iran, I think at the end of the day—I mean, this is part of this denial and deception mode we see around the world, but it was clearly Iran who did—who did the deal. And it’s concerning.
And the question presented for me is this: Is Iran deterred? And I just don’t know at this point, right? There was a—you know, maybe the most kind of notable thing about the incident was the response or lack of response on the—on the other side, and that’s a real—that’s a real question. And it’s—and it’s important for lots of reasons, but it’s important because if a country is not deterred and doesn’t have kind of with some precision the expectation of if I do this this is what’s going to happen to me, right, you know, or our—or our capabilities, it sets it up for a mistake. And that’s what you—you can go too far, right? You can say, well, we did X, Y, and Z and there wasn’t a response, so maybe we—and we haven’t seen the kind of reaction we want in terms of sanctions relief in their case, or—so why don’t we go—you know, go further, right, and then get the kind of response?
DOZIER: Are you—
DONILON: So I worry—I worry about that.
I also think there needs to be a tight focus, and I know that the administration and the—and the Saudi Arabian government are quite focused on the defensive capabilities that are necessary here. This was a difficult attack to prevent and respond to, frankly—low-flying cruise missiles and drones. It was a difficult, difficult deal. But we really need in terms of—you know, in terms of vulnerability of key infrastructure in the world, that’s a really important point.
DOZIER: But are you saying that you would have recommended if you were in your old role some sort of a bloody-nose strike to send a stronger message?
DONILON: Well, you know, I’m careful because I have been in these roles over the years, right, not to—it’s never—it’s always easiest from the outside to say, well, if I had been sitting there I would have done X, Y, and Z. I know more about these—more about this now after all these years to know that that’s just too easy.
I do think—I do think that the lack of response was notable. Why don’t I leave it—why don’t I leave it at that rather than saying—
DOZIER: More sanctions wasn’t enough.
DONILON: I think—you know, I don’t think so, you know. And so I think that the lack of response, I think, was notable. Now, you know, there was—I’m sure there was an analytical reason for that, that response. But I was—I think—I was surprised by the—by the type of response or lack of response because this was a—this was a serious—it was—it was a serious attack on a—on a partner, ally, and on something critically important to the—to the global economy that you wouldn’t want to see happen again.
DOZIER: And with that, I’d like to invite a question from this room. Looking for hands. Front row.
Q: Grace Skou (ph), Josena (ph) Capital.
So it’s a connected question on Iran and then North Korea and others. This administration uses economic sanction as the primary tool, and the theory goes taking away their wallet and they will come to the table eventually. So my question for the panel is, do you guys see the strategy working? If not, what would be your recommendations? Thank you.
FRY: Do you want to—
DOZIER: Oh, they’re looking at each other. (Laughter.)
DONILON: I’m looking to get briefed first before—(laughter)—by Danny and Suzanne.
I think a couple things. First of all, it’s notable to the extent to which the administration has used economic sanctions all around the world, frankly, with respect to all kinds of concerns and interests that the United States has, and that has its own costs and benefits to it over the—over the long term. My own view—and, by the way, economic sanctions have certainly had a very serious effect on the Iranian economy, which is in very difficult straits right now.
So the question always is, towards what end, right? You know, the use of economic sanctions—and you know, we certainly in the—in the Obama administration, I headed for almost five years a pressure campaign on Iran, used a lot of economic pressures on Iran—with a goal, though. The goal was, obviously, to get them back—to get them to the—to get them to the table and discuss the nuclear program. So it’s always important to ask what for, right? Where are we going with this thing? What’s the—what’s the idea?
My own view is that economic sanctions and I think diplomacy generally is more effective if you do it with partners and allies around the world. And I think that is the piece, I think, that’s missing here. I think the kind of persistent use of unilateral economic sanctions over the long haul actually can have dilatory effects on the—on the United States and its position in the world as the financial center of the world, as the world reserve currency.
And so my—and my—so, yes, there’s been impact. There’s no doubt about it, I think, to any degree.
DONILON: I mean, the impact on the Iranian economy has been severe and they’re in a very difficult position going forward over the next twelve or twenty-four months. But my own view would be that economic sanctions and pressure generally to achieve your goals works best if you have just a different approach, which is working with allies and partners.
DOZIER: But the Malaysian prime minister this weekend at the Doha Forum actually lectured Steve Mnuchin and Ivanka Trump in the front row about sanctions have more of a blowback against poor people, he was saying, that you should use—and blowback against nations in the region. I hadn’t seen that kind of publicly, you know, taking an administration to task like that.
FRY: I’ll pass on this. I’m not an expert on sanctions and not in the policy space.
STARES: If I could just—
DOZIER: Over in New York?
STARES: Yeah, just adding onto that, you know, the United States has clearly perfected the art of weaponizing the international financial system. You know, it’s been remarkably successful. It’s very discrete, surgical in the way it does it.
The question, I think, for the long term is, how long will we have this comparative advantage? Already Europeans, Russians, Chinese are looking for ways to essentially diminish the effectiveness of U.S. financial instruments and sanctions. And so I think, you know, you could be looking at a wasting asset.
Anyway, I will ask for another question here. Yes, this gentleman in the front row.
Q: Ed Cox with the New York Republican State Committee.
Going back to the first topic about cyber, social media, digital attempts to influence our elections, which of those attempts were most effective? And we’re looking to 2020 here. Which of those—the elections in 2020. Which of those attempts were most effective, and how were they implemented?
FRY: So I would begin by referring you and others to the—to the 2016—excuse me, 2017 January report on Russian interference in the U.S. election. And that document very nicely lays out what was observed, and it was basically the most concerning is, of course, the targeting of public debate in the United States and, frankly, the stoking of preexisting dynamics in a(n) absolutely false manner. And so that piece of this, I think, is one that remains deeply concerning. The other piece of this—so that’s a form of influence.
The other piece of this is interference, the actual or potential—let’s say potential—monkeying or manipulation of voter registration rolls or of actual ballots cast. And to my knowledge in that 2016 process—and I have stopped tracking this as of, like, eighteen months ago moving forward—that that has been kept to either a minimum or in ways that DHS and FBI have been able to work with local partners in order to manage.
But really, I think the way to think about this at a conceptual level is basically two different forms of activity to be concerned about: influence, the manipulation of how people think, form ideas, form opinions, and therefore vote; and then the other, actual physical interference—that might be digital interference—with the process itself.
DONILON: I think, though, we’re at the front end of these technologies and their potential effect. And on the first of those, I think, on the—you know, on the influence side, the principal platforms that have been used are social media platforms like Facebook.
We have developed technologies now—and they’ve developed it through their advertising technologies and their business models—of microtargeting very effectively voters, individuals around the country and around the world. Those techniques, by the way, will not stay limited to the Russians. You know, one thing we know through history is that the—is the diffusion of technology, right, and it will be used by others, and you can imagine all sorts of scenarios here that we really need to come to grips with as a society. You can imagine voter suppression efforts being carried out quite directly through social media targeting. You can imagine a situation where you would have direct targeting on certain, you know, groups in the United States, saying: great news, don’t worry about voting on Tuesday, you can vote on Wednesday now, you know? All kinds of things here that these technologies can be used for, not just by foreign adversaries but by others as well.
So I think it’s something we’re really at the front end of kind of understanding. And I wish the social media companies would look more—work more closely with the government to understand it and work on preventing kind of worst-case outcomes going forward. I think this issue that’s now on the table about ads by political candidates and their organizations, and how social media companies should deal with them—and there’s been different reactions from Google and Twitter and Facebook—is a really serious issue to be—I think to be debated as a matter of national security.
DOZIER: Let’s hope that media coverage of some of the ways it’s been abused makes the watching and reading public more educated about it.
DOZIER: Question right over here.
Q: Hi. Desirée Cormier with Albright Stonebridge Group.
Given how high Iran features on this list, I’m surprised Israel hasn’t come up. What is your assessment of a potential confrontation between Israel and Iran?
FRY: We should ask Paul that question, where did that come up in the survey.
STARES: Thanks, Suzy. (Laughs.)
FRY: No problem. (Laughs.)
STARES: I think that’s clearly a risk, and the Israelis must be very apprehensive about the reports of Iran pre-positioning long-range missiles in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, and—as well as rising influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon. You know, these are obvious sources of concern inside Israel. And we know from past behavior Israel is not at all reticent in undergoing preventive and preemptive attacks if they feel that their security interests are really threatened. And if we see Iran behave in a particularly aggressive, malign fashion in the coming months, I think we have to expect Israel to respond.
And the same also goes with, you know, these hints that Iran—well, more than hints, frankly—that Iran is reconsidering its various nuclear programs. And you know, we don’t have to go back too far to remember that Israel was poised to strike Iran nuclear facilities—practiced it, it was ready to go, and we were very close back, I think, around 2007/2008 with an Israeli strike. So I don’t think down—further down the road, if Iran continues to enrich and make noises about restarting a nuclear weapons-related program, that that’s another contingency we should worry about.
DONILON: You know, we’ve undertaken kind of a risk path here. You know, we had, you know, as you know—and I am obviously biased on the point I’m about to make—that the—you know, that the Iran nuclear deal, made not just with the United States but with the international community more generally, was actually by every account working within the four corners of what it was intended to do, which was a nuclear arms—which was an arms control agreement and preventing the Iranians from pursuing or getting closer to having a nuclear weapon. I think by every account, including the U.N. agencies and others, and our—I don’t want to—I don’t want to speak for the intelligence agency here, but felt—it feels like every report you had said it was working right. And instead of taking that as a baseline and as a matter of statecraft, then moving to other real problems on the missile side and Iran’s malign behavior throughout the world, we basically kind of broke the—broke the deal.
And the danger there is this, I think with respect to Israel and others in the region, is that Iran moves towards moving away from it obligations, right, even more than it has to date, and gets closer to kind of a breakout posture with respect to its nuclear program. And then you are really going to have a—as Paul was referring to, you’re going to have kind of a return to the kinds of situations we faced in the mid—in the—in the 2000s, right, 2007 to 2015 period, right. And that’s—I think that’s the real risk. We basically—we took kind of a—we took, at least with respect to the nuclear program, a fairly stable situation, took that off the table, and instead of kind of dealing with the other things through additional statecraft—which I think we probably could have moved the Europeans and others on—we took a more radical stance. We broke—we broke it off. We’re trying now through an intensive high-pressure campaign, as we talked about earlier, on Iran to try to bring them back to the table. But in this period here where you have the possibility that they—that the Iranians walk away from their obligations in a more significant way, you really then do have people starting to talk, then, again, how close are you to breakout, what are the risks, right? And if you’re sitting in Israel, you’re going to start to look very, very seriously at that, and then make the kinds of calculations and analyses that they made earlier, before the JCPOA.
DOZIER: What’s the most likely outcome of the maximum-pressure campaign?
DONILON: I don’t know at this point. I mean, I—you know, Suzy, do you want to?
FRY: I mean—I mean, best outcome here is that Iran goes back to its JCPOA commitments and demonstrates it, right, and demonstrates that it is walking away from pursuing a nuclear weapon. Also best case was that it takes and recognizes that sanctions are—will likely persist and to step back in its regional aggression. Those would be best-case outcomes. But I couldn’t—I couldn’t provide an estimate on the likelihood of those.
DONILON: You know, the history of this, you know, if you look back for, you know, what, forty years, right, if you look back at this, you know, Iran only makes kind of—and we can go through the history of it—makes kind of fundamental decisions like this only under—only under extreme pressure, and they are under extreme pressure right now. So I think that—I think you could—you know, the best-case scenario where you see both sides, you know, trying to find a way back to the table and to—and to try to move towards a new deal, right, going forward. But—
DOZIER: You wouldn’t mind if Trump one-ups your deal.
DONILON: Right, but then—but we’ve taken a—we’ve taken a path here which has, you know—we haven’t talked about Europe and European fragmentation issues. This has been exceedingly, I think, unnecessary and costly with our European allies, you know. And there was probably a better path to getting here, but you asked about the best-case scenario from where we are today, right? And I think it probably would be that, you know—that the pressure campaign reaches a point where the Iranians decide to come back to the table and you try to move towards some sort of newer—some sort of new deal. There was a much better way to do this. And it’s also there’s a risk that you don’t get there.
DOZIER: Paul, your side of the—
STARES: Yes, OK. Rita in the front row here.
Q: Rita Hauser.
I just would like to point to page five of the report, where you say there were some opportunities for those of us who responded to talk about other things, particularly instability within countries, attacks against minorities, the Hong Kong demonstrations, treatment of the Uighurs. I mean, I could list many more. What is the general approach that you think the United States is going to be taking vis-à-vis all of those troublesome things? Are we going to be Trumpian and just pick the ones that look good politically, with other issues like trade? How do we deal with the Congress’ views? And what’s happened to the U.S. support of human rights in general in these kinds of issues?
STARES: It’s a great question. I think, you know, we’ve all seen this upsurge in domestic protests around the world. You mentioned, you know, obviously Hong Kong, but we’ve seen it in the Middle East, in Africa, Lebanon, Sudan, Algeria I think just yesterday. You know, this isn’t a—you know, a temporary phenomenon. I think we’re going to see much more of this.
And it obviously confronts the U.S. with a fundamental question about how much do we support this. Do we encourage it or do we try to reach some kind of understanding with the countries that are most affected in the interest of larger geopolitical concern? There’s a lot of tradeoffs here. This is an acutely difficult, dilemma-ridden issue that we face, you know. I’d like to think that we would take a principled stand on protests which are around, you know, political change and human rights and so on, but you know, are we going to take that? Is this administration going to be so inclined? I’m not sure.
Plus, at the same time, whatever the executive branch wants to do, there’s Congress. And so in some extent we’ve seen this with the Uighur issue that—and with Hong Kong that the White House is being sort of pressured to act and take a position, so they can’t perhaps respond maybe quite so reticently as they may have done in the past. And social media magnifies this.
So this is an intensely difficult situation to address, and I don’t pretend to have a(n) easy solution to it, but I think we’re—you know, to borrow a term from Tom, we’re at the front edge of something big here. And we’re going to see more of this. I think people are genuinely upset with their internal situations, their prospects for the future. We haven’t even touched on climate change and how that’s going to create major unrest in a lot of countries. So a lot of things are going to start developing, I think, real momentum in the years ahead.
DOZIER: Question in the back, gentleman with the beard.
Q: Thank you. Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times.
You’ve talked about cyber. You’ve talked about the possibility of interference in our election. Are there any other contingencies you’ve looked at during the election year where foreign actors—state actors, nonstate actors—may be tempted to try their luck in one way or another? Is that one of the reasons for the surprising uptick in concern about mass terrorist attacks?
FRY: I’ll defer to Paul on the mass terrorist attacks question.
But you know, frankly, election years, irrespective of the election year, times of political transition or potential political change are always periods of heightened vulnerability for a country, and the United States is no exception. And particularly around as we get from right to the runup to the election to Inauguration Day, I mean, even if we have a second administration of the Trump administration, having so much personnel changeover is a period of vulnerability for a government. And some of these regional contingencies that we’ve talked about would absolutely become slightly more likely in those phases, in those periods. And so I think that’s an absolutely reasonable question to be putting out on the table.
I don’t know if, Paul, you want to speak to the terrorism piece.
DOZIER: I was curious about—to revisit that point. Why do people think it’s such a possibility, a rising possibility?
STARES: Yeah, we talked about this a lot internally. And as I said at the outset, over the last couple of years the level of concern or risk assessment has been declining fairly steadily, and I took that as the fact that we’re getting further and further from 9/11. But then we saw this sudden uptick. And so is that related to events in Syria and the fact that it’s clear that ISIS hasn’t really been defeated, and we can expect some blowback from what’s been going on in northern Syria? You know, most terrorism experts say that al-Qaida is far from dead, although, you know, we haven’t heard too much from them, thankfully, recently. So I attribute it, frankly, to events in Syria and ISIS and general anxiety, was well as sort of a conflation with a lot of domestic-related terrorist attacks. And we’ve seen quite a few of those recently.
DONILON: And I think that’s an important point, by the way. Which is that, you know, Doyle, on the—in an election year, there’s—you know, if you go back through the history of presidential election years there’s risk, as Suzanne was pointing out; there’s also opportunities for presidents during an election—during an election year to move on some things and to, you know, get wins for the United States and advance our interests. So there’s risk and opportunity.
On the terror point, I think it’s a really interesting point. On the one hand—and it is both international and domestic, I think, that we have had, you know, a—you know, a much more chaotic situation now in northeast—in northeast Syria. The at least a public step that I see, including inspector general’s reports, have indicated a concern about a resurgence of ISIS. We have had, you know, some of the—obviously, the circumstance in northeast Syria and the jailing of a number of these ISIS folks and their families is kind of—is more chaotic now than it was when the Kurds were managing the process. So there is a risk, I think particularly for Europe, with respect to—with respect to ISIS returning on the terror front.
And there is—if you look at the—if you look at the numbers, right, over the last year or two in terms of terrorist actions in the United States, it’s a domestic extremist issue in many cases, which is a—which is a concern, I think.
DOZIER: Well, with that I want to say thank you to our members, thank you to our experts. This has been, this CFR meeting, on “What to Worry About in 2020.” Thank you very much. (Applause.)